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Modern Living – Sonneveld House, Rotterdam

Sonneveld House, Brinkman and Van der Vlugt, 1930s, Rotterdam, phot. Joanna Kaszubowska.


Modern Living – Sonneveld House, Rotterdam

Visit with us the Sonneveld House Museum, one of the best-preserved examples the Nieuwe Bouwen style, the Dutch branch of the International School of Modernism. Designed in the 1930s by architecture office Brinkman and Van der Vlugt, of the Van Nelle Factory and Feyenoord Stadium (which may look very typical today, but in the 1930s was extremely modern). Sonneveld House shows how a prominent Rotterdam family embraced modernism, and how that choice colored their everyday surroundings.

The architects of the Sonneveld House designed a total concept with perfectly coordinated architecture, interior, and furnishings. The house has a skeletal structure which allowed for gigantic windows, opening the house to the surrounding garden. The structure also allowed to dispense with bearing walls and replace them with sliding panels and curtains. Thus achieving extreme flexibility of space.

Who were the Sonnevelds?

Sonneveld House, master bedroom, Brinkman and Van der Vlugt, 1930s , Rotterdam, phot. Joanna Kaszubowska - Rotterdam, Modernism
Sonneveld House, master bedroom, Brinkman and Van der Vlugt, 1930s, Rotterdam, phot. Joanna Kaszubowska.

The family comprised Albertus Sonneveld, one of the directors of the Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam, his wife Gésine Sonneveld-Bos and their daughters Puck and Gé. They lived in Sonneveld House from 1933 to 1955. Earlier, they lived in a stately nineteenth-century townhouse in the center of Rotterdam. When they moved, they left almost everything behind in the old house. The only items the family brought with them were artworks, books, clothing, and personal belongings. Everything else was new: furniture, furnishing fabrics, lamps, clocks, desk items, vases, tableware, and glasses. Almost all items of furniture and lamps in the house were made by the firm Gispen, some of them, especially for the Sonnevelds.

The studio and daughters’ rooms

Sonneveld House, daughter’s studio, Brinkman and Van der Vlugt, 1930s , Rotterdam, phot. Joanna Kaszubowska
Sonneveld House, daughter’s studio, Brinkman and Van der Vlugt, 1930s, Rotterdam, phot. Joanna Kaszubowska.

The studio was designed for the Sonnevelds’ two daughters. The sisters used the studio for reading, listening to music and entertaining their friends. The studio contains a multifunctional sofa designed by Leendert van der Vlugt (1894-1936), including a bookshelf, cupboard and sound system: a speaker, gramophone player, and control panel with knobs for volume and selecting radio stations. The radio, connected to other rooms in the house, allowed the family to listen to the music selected in the studio all over the house.

Sonneveld House, daughters’ rooms, Brinkman and Van der Vlugt, 1930s, Rotterdam, phot. Joanna Kaszubowska.

Magdalena, the eldest daughter, nicknamed Puck, was nineteen when the family moved to Sonneveld House. She got the larger of the two children’s bedrooms with a magnificent terrace accessible only from her room. The girls’ rooms had the same furnishings but in different colors: Puck chose blue. The daughters, Puck and Gé shared a bathroom, located between their two bedrooms.

Sonneveld House, Gé’s room, Brinkman and Van der Vlugt, 1930s, Rotterdam, phot. Joanna Kaszubowska.

Like her sister Puck, Gé also chose the color of her own bedroom: yellow. Gé (short for Gesine), the youngest daughter, was thirteen when the family moved to Sonneveld House. Her friends remember how Gé’s mother sometimes collected her from school in her car. She was the only woman in Rotterdam with her own car.

The dining room

Sonneveld House, dining room, Brinkman and Van der Vlugt, 1930s , Rotterdam, phot. Joanna Kaszubowska

The interior colors are warm and bright: vermillion red, cornflower blue, and canary yellow, combined with light and dark grey and brown. The furnishing fabrics came from Metz & Co., including a range of colors designed by artist Bart van der Leck (1876-1958). In the sitting room and library, Van der Leck’s colors of the yellow office chair and orange-red armchairs form accents against a more neutral palette of brown, bronze and beige. In the bedrooms and dining room, the situation is reversed: here his colors are used for the large expanses: red dining room cabinets, blue curtains and yellow for the floor.

And the living room

Sonneveld House, living room, Brinkman and Van der Vlugt, 1930s, Rotterdam, phot. Joanna Kaszubowska.

Mrs Sonneveld appreciated the appliances that could make her life easier. She was a practical, decisive and independent woman who did not like to waste time or money. This is clear from the many innovative gadgets in the house: the electric coffee grinder on the kitchen counter, the rubbish chute to the right of the door, the intercom system that enabled her to hear who was at the service entrance below. The electric lift allowed to transport the delivered goods up to the kitchen or down to the cellar.

The wall surrounding the open fire in the library also contained several ultramodern technical appliances. The lower door concealed a lift transporting the wood from the cellar. There was also a clock connected to the electrical circuit, which was highly exceptional at the time.

The master bathroom

Sonneveld House, master bathroom, Brinkman and Van der Vlugt, 1930s, Rotterdam, phot. Joanna Kaszubowska.

Mr. and Mrs. Sonneveld’s bathroom was the height of modernist luxury in the 1930s. When many houses still had no shower, this bathroom with two washbasins, a shower cabin and a bath (and a heated towel rack) was exceptional. Mr. Sonneveld discovered the hydro-massage shower in luxury hotels in America. He had the large shower head and the nine smaller nozzles sent over from there.

kitchen and maid’s quarters

Sonneveld House, kitchen, Brinkman and Van der Vlugt, 1930s, Rotterdam, phot. Joanna Kaszubowska.

The kitchen in Sonneveld House was fitted with all mod cons. Only the cooker itself was a little ‘old-fashioned’. It is notable that the family did not opt for an electric stove, which many books of the period advised. Mrs. Sonneveld had a practical approach and preferred the quicker and cheaper gas.

Sonneveld House
Sonneveld House, maid’s room, Brinkman and Van der Vlugt, 1930s, Rotterdam, phot. Joanna Kaszubowska.

The Sonnevelds’ maids earned 27.50 guilders per month plus food and accommodation. Mrs. Sonneveld personally took care of ordering supplies and arranging the menus. The maids took it in turns to cook meals and ate when the family finished eating. There was a bell on the dining table that set off a buzzer in the kitchen: a wire ran through the table leg to an electrical socket under the windowsill. The family also summoned the maids through the house telephone or through a system of buzzers connected to lamps: the color indicating where the maids were needed:  the bedroom, dining room/living room, or the library.

The Sonneveld House Museum gives us a rare glimpse into everyday life in a luxurious modernist villa. A house full of light, all the modern appliances one may want, flexible living space, perfectly adjusted to the needs of its inhabitants.

Further reading:

The Last Craftsman. Exploring Henry van de Velde and the Passage of Modernism

The Practical Side of Modernism – Aino Marsio-Aalto

Frauhaus: Gunta Stölzl, Walter Gropius, and the Women of the Bauhaus

Passing Time with Klee: Demonstrating Temporality in Visual Art

Art historian by education, data geek by trade, art and book lover by passion, based in London in love with Europe and travelling around it. You can visit my book blog here:


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